We hear a lot of talk about personal information and privacy. A great many people are concerned (rightly, in my opinion) about who has their information and what they can do with it. Other people either ignorantly or voluntarily give away a lot of personal information about themselves. For better or worse, there is a lot of information, some dangerous and some largely innocuous, floating around about each of us.
New sources of data do reveal some interesting information, however. NPR recently ran a story about a couple of efforts to mine such data to reveal more about us as a society. I have to admit, some of it is quite interesting, though I’m not sure how useful it is just yet.
The first study is based on voluntary data. Have you come across a dollar bill with “wheresgeorge.com” written or stamped on it? I have, though I haven’t done anything with it. Other people have, however. The idea is to find a dollar bill in your pocket, go to the website and enter the serial number, and then go spend that bill. If someone else receives that bill and goes to the site and reports having found that serial number the system now has a new data point identifying the movement of that bill. With enough data points a picture begins to emerge.
What surprised the site researchers is that clear boundaries emerged as to where money did and didn’t go. America, it seems, is made up of half a dozen or so “mega communities” where people regularly interact with one another. They cross state lines, certainly, and yet have clear lines of their own. I, for example, live in the Salt Lake City mega-zone that takes in all of Utah, part of Nevada, part of Wyoming, and a large chunk of Idaho.
Someone else did something similar with cellphone data. Supposedly it was data cleansed of any individual data, but we have to take their word on that. That data also reveals that we have strong groupings geographically in which we call one another. Though not as broad a scale as the Wheresgeorge data, clear areas exist, and from a quick visual glance, they seem similar.
So anyway, I’m a bit conflicted on this sort of thing. I really don’t like the idea that my phonecall information is being given out, even to MIT. And yet the research it helped does provide some interesting insights on a larger scope. Hari Seldon would have loved this. Anyway, what’s done is done. You may as well go check out the article. It’s interesting.